So I’m reading the Iliad with my two oldest daughters. No, don’t roll your eyes. That’s not what this post is actually about. It’s just the premise. (Why and how we’re reading the Iliad is perhaps an interesting and worthy subject, but I’ll leave it out for now because I’ve been writing too much about reading to older children.)
So I’m reading the Iliad with my two oldest daughters – 7th and 9th graders. (Real quickly, the 7th grader is reading it for extra credit in her Latin class; the 9th grader is piggybacking because she loves all things Greek; and I am along for the ride because it’s a moment I’ve imagined and dreamed of – but was never confident would actually happen – since I checked Star Wars, Episode IV off the list.) In case you haven’t been there in a long time (or even never been), it’s a pretty bloody book. Lots of fighting between Greeks and Trojans – that’s kind of the point – and lots of explicit gore. I keep reminding my daughters – not that they need it – that in an age not only without television or computer or film but without printing, oral recitation of epic poetry needed to be detailed to fill in all the color and nuance of a scenario. Those Greek greats weren’t poets for nothing.
So, lots of gory detail. (Lots of beautiful detail from the natural world, too.) When soldiers get killed it is very much like a modern action movie. Homer tells you and shows you exactly where the spear went in and what happens to the body. (Yes, my girls somehow love this. Don’t ask.)
But the girls have also learned that the Greek warriors in the Iliad were not exactly gentleman with a fine sense of sportsmanship. They did a great deal of gloating and challenging and chest beating. Not unlike modern NFL players exulting and self-promoting over a fine defensive play. (In fact, the girls agreed with me that when the gods exhort the Greek and Trojan chieftains, and those same chieftains then rally their troops and inspire them to fight harder and longer, it is not unlike a football coach going up and down the bench or sideline trying to motivate his players. The stakes are different, but the challenge to honor and manhood – the techniques – are the same.)
One other little thing that caught their eye was the emphasis the Greek warriors place on their armor – and their opponents’ armor. When you cut down an opponent in the Iliad, the thing to do is take their armor. If you can. It is a trophy that proves your worth and esteems your value back home. But a man’s comrades will go to some lengths to prevent you from stripping a fallen comrade’s armor. So there is a lot of effort – and language – expended on the issue. (Those who know the Iliad will know that I am understating the case. Fully three books of the Iliad are principally concerned with the fate of one man’s armor.)
Now I have a nine-year-old, too. (Finally, I’m getting to the point of this little anecdote.) And the Iliad is not for her, right? Too gory, for one. And the reading level must be beyond her. Both are true, but don’t count your chickens. My nine-year-old loves dogs. And I did read her a chapter from the Odyssey, just to show her what we were up to and how it might interest her – someday – in ways she could not anticipate. I read her the chapter in which Odysseus returns to Ithaca, and is concealing his identity while being escorted by a shepherd, and no one can recognize him. And he comes upon his faithful dog, Argos, who has been waiting for his return (along with his wife and son and household) these twenty years. Argos is the first to recognize him – he wags his tail to express his happiness. Whereupon he curls up and dies.
It is a poignant and heartfelt (and famous) moment and my daughter will never forget it. Is she ready for the Odyssey yet, all 24 books in its entirety? No. But the next time the subject comes up – to learn something more from that part of Greek history, or to read the Odyssey when it is time – will she approach it with fear and trepidation or with a sense of confidence and curiosity, knowing there are other delights and mysteries therein? Well, that’s the plan anyway.
But the Iliad is still not for my nine-year-old. Not yet. Not for a few more years anyway. But that didn’t stop her sisters.
Now my nine-year-old turned nine in December, before Christmas. Like anyone’s child, there are times when she is precocious, nine going on fourteen. And there are times when she is just a little girl, nine wanting to be six. Or just being nine. As parents, we enjoy both tendencies, but we cherish the latter because they are the fleeting ones. Children only grow up.
Before her birthday, she surprised her parents by asking for a set of Playmobil knights, little two-inch plastic figurines, bedecked with armor and weapons, who would fight it out and ride horses amidst castles and things. I knew she still liked – occasionally – to play with Legos and Star Wars figurines and even little plastic horses. But I didn’t know this. It was such an unexpected, and delightful, request that we said yes and found her a Playmobil castle with knights and all their regalia.
And she has happily set it up (with the help of her 7th grade sister, no less – twelve going on seven, for a fleeting moment) and played with it for a month. Lots of knights mounting their horses and charging off. Knights fighting on the ramparts. (The castle even has some of the weaponry medieval soldiers used to ward off attackers. Did I say nine-year-olds don’t like gore?) And of course knights duking it out with their swords and shields and pikes.
And then one day, what do I find as I pass by the stricken battlefield? My nine-year-old is helping/having a knight strip the armor off a vanquished foe! She had been playacting a battle – same as any other I had thought – and then I hear her voicing, “Now, we must take the armor off the fallen knight. Back! I say, Back! No one dare touch the fallen knight. We must have the armor for a trophy.”
Need I say more? Her big sisters had kindly passed the information on from the Iliad and there it was in full relief on the battlefield/bedroom floor. And I had nothing to do with it. What more could you want? Not everything about reading aloud – that is, sharing a story and its style and details and context – is about the reading. Sometimes, it’s about some part of the experience that gets shared with others. Sometimes it’s sentimental. Sometimes its historical. But either way, it makes my heart glow.